# How much child support will a judge order?

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
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The amount of a child support order is based on the income and expenses of both parents. Massachusetts has Child Support Guidelines, which help judges decide how much child support to order.

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How do judges use the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet?

Massachusetts has Child Support Guidelines which judges use to decide how much a child support order should be.  The Child Support Guidelines Worksheet goes along with the Guidelines to help parents and judges do the math the Guidelines describe.

A completed worksheet includes information about both parents' income, expenses, and number of children.

The Worksheet calculates the amount of income each parent has for supporting your children and a basic amount of child support.

The Worksheet calls the basic child support amount “Payor’s share of support.” The parent who gets the child support is called the “Recipient,” and the parent who pays the child support is called the “Payor.”

The Worksheet adjusts the basic amount so that:

• If the Recipient is paying a larger share of child and health care, the Worksheet gives them a credit and raises the child support amount.
• If the Payor is paying a larger share of child and health care, the Worksheet gives them a credit and lowers the child support amount.

Learn more about what is in the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet and how to fill it out.

Can the judge order an amount of child support different from the Child Support Guidelines amount?

Yes, the judge can order a different amount of child support from the amount on the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet. The different amount is called a “deviation” from the Guidelines.

The judge can order a deviation from the amount on the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet in any of these situations:

1. The parents agree to a different amount and the judge approves their agreement. The judge will only approve agreements that are reasonable and fair.
2. Your child has costly ongoing special needs or abilities that cost a lot.
3. Your child has costly extraordinary mental, physical, or developmental needs that are ongoing.
4. You or the other parent has costly extraordinary mental, physical, or developmental needs that are ongoing.
5. You or the other parent has extraordinary expenses for health care coverage.
6. You or the other parent has extraordinary travel or other expenses connected to parenting.
7. You or the other parent is paying too much for child care compared to your income.
8. You or the other parent spends a lot less than 1/3 of your parenting time with your children.
9. The payor is in jail and does not have enough money or assets to pay support.
10. Paying the Worksheet amount leaves you without enough money to support yourself. This can happen if you have a very low income.
11. Applying the Guidelines results in:
1. a huge difference between the 2 parents' standards of living, and
2. one household is left with too little of their “combined available income”.
12. Applying the Guidelines makes it hard for you and your child to be reunited if the Department of Children and Families (DCF) removed your child temporarily.
13. Without deviating from the Guidelines, applying them results in an order that is unfair, inappropriate, or not in the child’s best interest.

For example

Peter is Sam's son. He is 11 and lives with Sam. Sam works at night to make enough money to support himself and Peter. Sam never asked for child support.

Somebody called DCF and reported that Sam leaves Peter alone until late at night. DCF has to look into the report. While they are looking into it, they take Peter away and put him in foster care.

The Worksheet amount for child support is the minimum order, \$12 a week. Sam asks the court to deviate from the \$12 and order \$100 even though Peter is not living at home right now. With this deviation from the Worksheet amount, Sam may not have to work such long hours, or he could pay a sitter, so Peter can move back home.

When should the judge deviate from the Guidelines?

If Line 7e on the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet is 40% or more, the judge is supposed to:

• Assume that the Payor has a substantial hardship, and
• Order less than the amount the Guidelines say.

But, if the Recipient has any of the challenges like the ones listed above, they should tell the judge. These are reasons the judge should not order less than the amount the Guidelines say. And the judge may even order more child support because of these reasons.

Line 7e is the percentage of the payor’s available income that would go to pay the amount of child support the Guideline Worksheet calculates.

What must the judge do if they deviate from the Guidelines?

If the judge deviates from the guidelines, they must write down::

1. The amount of child support the Guidelines calculate,
2. That the amount of child support the Guidelines calculate is not a fair or reasonable amount under the circumstances,
3. The circumstances that justify why they decided on a different amount from the Guidelines amount, and
4. That changing the amount from the guidelines amount is in your child’s best interest.

The information they write is called “findings.” Their findings go into the court file. You can get a copy from the court.

If a judge does not make these written findings, you can ask them to do so. You can send a letter to the judge asking them to make the written findings.  You must send a copy of this letter to the other party. Let the judge know that you have sent a copy of the letter to the other party.

What if a parent earns less than they could?

If a parent earns less than they can, the judge can calculate a child support order based on what the parent can earn.

The judge can decide that a parent must contribute more to child support if the parent is:

1. Able to work but unemployed or underemployed,
2. Earns less than they could, and
3. Not trying hard enough to earn what they could earn.

When the judge decides a parent should contribute more, the judge must consider the age, number, needs, and care of the children.

The judge must also consider the parent’s circumstances like:

• assets, things the parent owns,
• residence,
• education,
• training,
• job skills,
• literacy,
• criminal record and other employment barriers,
• age,
• health,
• past employment and earnings history,
• past record of seeking work,
• availability of employment at the attributed income level,
• availability of employers willing to hire the parent, and
• relevant normal earnings in the local community.

The Child Support Guidelines call what you could be earning instead of what you are actually earning “attribution of income.” If you are earning less than you could, the judge can attribute income to you and use that amount in the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet.

What if a parent does not report all of their income?

Parents do not always report all their income on the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet or Financial Statement.

• They might not know what counts as income.
• They might think they do not need to report some payments they get.
• The income might not be documented. Getting paid “under the table” or “off the books” is undocumented income. If you do not get a 1099 or W-2 with the income, it may be undocumented.

Parents might not report certain kinds of payments they get like:

• Reimbursements of their expenses,
• In-kind payments or benefits, like having their rent paid for them,
• Using business property for their personal benefit, or
• Personal expenses paid by their employer or their own business

The judge can count these payments as income if they are:

• significant, and
• reduce the parent’s personal living expenses.

If it looks like a parent’s income and expenses do not match, the judge can look at a parent’s lifestyle to figure out what their income really is.

Judges look at evidence of a parent’s

• Ownership and maintenance of assets, like an apartment building or restaurant,
• Personal expenses, and
• Spending patterns.

If the judge decides a parent has unreported or undocumented income, the judge can estimate how much income the parent has. Estimating the unreported or undocumented income and adding it to a parent’s income is called “imputing” income.

If the judge decides to impute income, they use the imputed income in the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet.

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